In 1960, I left town to try my luck at
While crafting a music career in
acting in New York City. I was mar-
ried by then; I met the former Shir-
ley Ann Tomaselli at a dance where
I was playing. She wore a purple vel-
vet skirt. We’ve been married sixty-two
years. But, I left my wife and our son
and daughter back in Buffalo for a year
when I went to New York. Through an
agent, I got some gigs, some jobs as an
extra. At one point, Richard Castellano
offered to be my agent; he was a great
guy who was best known for his role as
Clemenza in The Godfather. But I was
not on that track; I had to make mon-
ey to send back home. I was working
as a bouncer for twelve dollars an hour.
Eventually, I was broke, and my fam-
ily was starving, so when I found out
I passed the exam to become a Buffalo
police officer, I went back home. It was
1963. I was a cop for the next twenty
years, but all the while I am still writ-
ing. Things take a while to percolate.
I got my SAG-AFTRA [Screen Actors
Guild and American Federation of Tele-
vision and Radio Artists] card in 1978,
when Hide in Plain Sight was being
shot in Buffalo. I had a chance to read
for the producers. Then they had me
read for Jimmy Caan. They cast me as a
cook in my restaurant. I also appeared
in the last movie ever directed by John
Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985). In
1988, my play No One Is Us was final-
ly performed at the Actors Studio; Mar-
tin Landau, Mark Rydell, and Sydney
Pollack were responsible for getting it
produced. In the audience one night
was Jon Voight. I went up to him to
say hello. He said “Who are you?” I
said, “I’m the playwright, from Buffalo,
where I remember seeing you perform
in A Streetcar Named Desire at the old
Studio Arena Theatre.” He really liked
my play, and liked hearing that. Lain-
ie Kazan was another one who encour-
aged my work. She and I became good
I was sixteen, although by then I was
embarrassed if any of the girls saw me.
I went to Hutchinson Central for high
school, where they had a good music
program. I had some great teachers all
along the way, people who encouraged
me to write and sing and play the trum-
pet. I sometimes snuck out of school to
go to lessons, when I could get them
for free. One day, I tried to sneak into
a venue where Louis Armstrong was
performing. Security was ushering me
out when Armstrong saw the commo-
tion and asked why they were ejecting
me. Before anyone else could answer,
I said, “Mr. Armstrong, I’m a trumpet
player, too, but I don’t have any money.
I just wanted to hear you play.” Arm-
strong said to let me go, and invited me
to visit backstage, where we talked for
an hour and a half; he was a great man.
At seventeen, I talked my way into a job
playing jazz in the band at a club down-
town. We got a lot of servicemen in, and
they’d be drinking, and the fights would
start. Do you know how many times I
played the “Star-Spangled Banner” to
stop a fight? Played it on my trumpet.
They’d hear it and immediately stop
Buffalo, you were also writing and
acting, work that took you away
Yes, I played at a lot of clubs here
in town, behind some big names who
came to perform. But, I was also writing, always telling stories. Back in
1964, I started writing about a dysfunctional Sicilian family. It became
my play No One Is Us. I had teachers
who encouraged my writing and had
me recite poems, classics of literature,
in class. I still remember them. I don’t
know much about grammar; if it sounds
good—if it’s musical to me—that’s how
I write. And I always loved performing.
Did you really run for mayor?
Yes, in 1973. I was a city detective
back then; I wanted to change the city
because I thought it was going down
the toilet. It was a three-way fight for
the Democratic mayoral nomination
with me and former City Court Judge
Wilbur Trammell against Mayor Stanley Makowski. So, we know who won.
But I got something like 11,000 votes.
I’m glad I’ve been around a while, long
enough to see this beautiful city coming back, all the new buildings and the
trees growing again.
I did try to leave, to make it in New
York once, and later in California. But,
here I am still.
And it makes my day when people
recognize me. Happens all the time—
somebody remembers my restaurant or
knew me way back when.
Tell us about the early days, the
trajectory of your career—make that
careers. You grew up on the West
Side, in modest circumstances.
Like a lot of people. I’m one of three
children. My parents, Gregorio Giambra and Josephine Sperrazzo, emigrated from Sicily, but they went back and
forth a couple of times, and my mother
had their first child in Italy. He was here
working when he sent for my mother and sister. It was 1929, and they
landed on Ellis Island. No one there
to meet them. They waited three days
when, finally, my father showed up.
He’d been at the funeral of his brother in Buffalo, but she didn’t know any
of that, and threw a frying pan at him.
That’s family lore—that one frying pan
was basically all their household goods.
Well, they made it to Buffalo, and my
father earned money digging ditches.
We lived on Efner Street, between Carolina and Georgia. At age nine, I was
adding to the family income by polishing shoes downtown. Did that until
Q&A/The many lives of Joey Giambra
BY MARIA SCRIVANI
Actor, author, trumpet player, cook, police officer: Joey Giambra’s life immediately prompts
the comment, “This would make a good movie.” In fact, parts of it have been told for the
stage and screen, in plays like his Bread and Onions, and films like La Terra Promessa, which
chronicles the history of Italian-Americans in Western New York. Add to the Giambra catalogue
the soon-to-be-released CD, Legacy, on which he sings seven original songs along with a half-
dozen standards, at times also playing the trumpet. In his eighth decade, this denizen of the
West Side, this kid who used to hustle ten-cent shoeshines on downtown street corners and
grew up to run for mayor of Buffalo, remains indefatigable. Last spring, he played a farmer
in a scene in Marshall, the Hollywood film shot in Buffalo. He wrote the bio of legendary
local restaurateur Russ Salvatore and is working on a video. He edits Per Niente, a quarterly
magazine dedicated to Italian heritage. On any given evening, he can be found in a theater
audience or on a stage playing his trumpet. Or, he might be home cooking, an enduring
pastime that was once a profession in a lifetime filled with odd jobs and creative careers.